There was an excited buzz in the room. By virtue of their animated conversations, it was obvious that these men and women, mostly in their forties, knew each other well. They were gathered for a graduation event, more than twenty intrepid souls who had completed a career transition program sponsored by Spark, a non-profit business development entity located in Southeast Michigan.
I had been invited to give the group a leadership pep talk. Some were intent on leaving jobs voluntarily; others had left involuntarily through downsizing; and all wanted to remain in Michigan to begin a new career.
As ruthlessly as the recession has gutted the global economy, few places have been as hard hit as Michigan. My state has been in recession since 2000. In other words, the bust that broke the dotcom boom never left. And so making a decision to remain here is either madness or commitment.
Looking at the men and women gathered that evening, I saw no signs of delusion. I saw determination and a commitment to make things better. What I told them can be reduced to a handful of pithy quotes that I shared with them.
“Do not let what you cannot do, interfere with what you can do.” The words are those of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. When attempting to do anything new, voices inside us will whisper “No, don’t do it.” Those who give up listen to such voices; those who persevere pay them no heed. When it comes to making big and bold changes, either in our lives or our careers, there will always be those around us telling us no; it is up to us to heed our own inner yes.
“Talk does not cook rice.” As this Chinese proverb implies, you must do more than talk about what you want to do next; you have to take action to make it happen. As as author and management strategist Ram Charan teaches, large organizations fail not because of lack of good intention, but for lack of effective execution. The same applies to us. We fail to move from thinking and talking to acting.
“He who has no fire within himself cannot warm others.” You need to have passion for what you do, as this Swiss-German proverb advises. Otherwise no one will follow you. This is critical for anyone seeking to build a business or start a new career. You need to radiate a passion about what you do so that others can feel and share it with you. Entrepreneurs need passion to attract capital; job seekers need passion to convince employers of their worthiness.
As I came to the conclusion of my short speech, I could sense the audience was with me. Eyes were focused, some were even leaning forward, and one or two even took notes. And so in closing, I paused to share a quote that I had discovered in preparation for this presentation.
“I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” As I uttered Lincoln’s words, a low sound of affirmation rose up from the group. These men and women sensed that Lincoln was speaking directly to them. Not only did they understand his intentions, they were living them. Each had made a commitment to their state, their locality to make it better; they hoped that their actions would make it a better place for their families, their communities, and themselves. That gave them pride. They were, as Lincoln said, seeking to make “the place be proud of” them.
That is the commitment that businesses in Michigan will need if they are to succeed. Judged by the guts and gumption of the men and women to whom I spoke, our state’s chances for recovery seemed just a bit brighter. Where there is will, there can be hope.
First posted on HBR.org 6/29/2009